By Dr Jade Maggs, Marine Scientist…
Diving Pondoland is an unforgettable experience. This underwater wilderness is situated in the South-West Indian Ocean on the east coast of South Africa and was proclaimed a marine protected area (MPA) in June 2004. Water temperature here is relatively warm most of the year, being located in a transitional zone between the subtropical Natal and warm-temperate Agulhas bioregions.
Diving Pondoland is for the more adventurous diver. The MPA is a bit off the beaten track, located in the upper reaches of the Eastern Cape Province. This stretch of coast is also known as the Wild Coast for good reason. Weather and sea conditions are often harsh with strong winds and large swell. Also, the coastal terrain is extremely rugged and largely unspoilt with minimal development. However, for those who are willing to take up the challenge, diving on the Wild Coast will not disappoint.
Pondoland Marine Protected Area on the east coast of South Africa.
As MPAs go, Pondoland is large, covering approximately 80 km of coastline between the Mzamba River and the Umzimvubu River at Port St Johns. The MPA extends from the shoreline out to the 1000 m isobath beyond the continental shelf edge, encompassing 1380 km2 of ocean. The seafloor within the MPA consists of scattered rocky reef and sand habitat.
The central region of the MPA is designated as a restricted no-take zone. This zone covers 40 km of coastline between the Sikombe and Mbotyi (pronounced im-boy-kee) rivers, and is closed to all forms of vessel-based exploitation. The restricted zone encompasses 643 km2 of ocean
Controlled-use zones are situated to the northeast and to the southwest of the no-take zone, together accounting for 661 km2. In these areas, vessel-based line-fishing and vessel-based spearfishing are permitted, but no industrial fishing, such as trawling or long lining, is permitted.
There are two boat launch sites that can be used to access the Pondoland dive sites. These launch sites are located in the seaside towns of Port Edward and Mbotyi. Unfortunately, there are currently no dedicated diving charters operating out of either Port Edward or Mbotyi, so you will need to launch your own boat to access the Pondoland dive sites. The Port Edward boat launch site is located 9 km northeast of the MPA and 196 km (02h12 min) south of the King Shaka International Airport.
For the more adventurous at heart, Mbotyi is located on a rugged stretch of coastline within the MPA itself. As the crow flies, Mbotyi is only 66 km south of Port Edward. However, the roads to Mbotyi are winding and pass through rural farm areas. The drive to Mbotyi can, therefore, take 3h15 min (182 km) from Port Edward or 5h40 min (427 km) from King Shaka International Airport. Driving to Mbotyi should not be attempted at night. When you get to Mbotyi, however, the beauty of the Wild Coast will more than compensate for the long drive.
Diving the Pondoland Marine Protected Area
Diving Pondoland is not for the novice diver. There are many rivers that drain into the sea along the Pondoland coast, which means that the water visibility is often poor, especially after rain. Strong currents are also a frequent occurrence. However, during late autumn/early winter, the Wild Coast becomes a little tamer with less rain and less wind, making this the best time of year to dive Pondoland. May and June are particularly good months. In the right conditions, when the weather plays its part, the Pondoland reefs can make for magnificent diving.
The sub-tidal environment consists of shelving reef complexes running parallel to the coast, with several excellent dive localities in the 12 – 40 m depth range. Water temperature ranges from about 19° C in the winter to 25° C in the summer.
Conditions are generally better along the northern reaches of the Pondoland coastline, where diveable reefs are generally within 3 km of the shore. After launching from Port Edward and travelling 7 km southwest, you will find reef off the Mzamba River. This reef is just outside the MPA and is completely open to all vessel-based exploitation. Further south are the reefs off the Mnyameni River, which are 17 km from Port Edward by boat. The Mnyameni reef is in the northern controlled zone of the MPA and is therefore also open to limited vessel-based exploitation.
Moving further south (25 km from Port Edward), there is magnificent reef off the Sikombe River, which is actually the boundary between the northern controlled-use zone and the restricted no-take zone. The Sikombe reef straddles the reserve boundary and fishing boats from Port Edward can sometimes be seen fishing on the boundary, hoping to harvest the spillover from the rich no-take zone.
Even further south, there is extensive reef off the Mtentu River (29 km from Port Edward) and this is completely within the restricted no-take zone of the MPA. Still further south is reef off the Mkhambati Nature Reserve in the vicinity of Gwegwe (35 km from Port Edward).
Moving south of Mkhambati, the water visibility is often poor, due to upwelling from a cyclonic eddy that operates between Port St Johns and Waterfall Bluff.
Remember, South African regulations require that you purchase a “Scuba Diving in MPAs” permit from an Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife office or a participating post office before diving in the MPA.
Marine life of the Pondoland MPA
Below the surface, the Pondoland coast is just as wild and untamed as it is above the surface. Because the area is a transitional ecosystem, the marine life is a mix of subtropical and warm-temperate species with a high turnover of species as one moves southwards through the MPA.
In the restricted no-take zone, fish enjoy year-round protection from fishing. As a result, this area is teeming with fish life and there is no shortage of large predators. Iconic seabream, such as black musselcracker Cymatoceps nasutus and Scotsman Polysteganus praeorbitalis patrol singly or in small groups close to the reef, while slinger Chrysoblephus puniceus can sometimes be seen aggregating in large shoals above the reef. These species are popular in the fishery and have been heavily exploited in the past. However, in the restricted no-take zone, they have increased in number and size.
Chubby yellowbelly rockcod Epinephelus marginatus tend to remain hidden in holes in the reef, while inquisitive catface rockcod Epinephelus andersoni will often come out to investigate a curious diver. Strangely, there is a conspicuous absence of potato bass Epinephelus tukula, which are fairly common slightly further north, especially on Protea Banks, Landers Reef, Aliwal Shoal, and the reefs of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Look out for the rare tiger angelfish Apolemichthys kingi, named after prominent underwater photographer, Dennis King. This species has a remarkably limited geographic range, but can sometimes be seen investigating the Pondoland reefs singly or in pairs.
Pondoland is too far south of the equator for reef-building corals to proliferate. The benthic community is dominated by coralline seaweeds, gorgonian sea fans and large sponges.